August. Faugust. Slaugust. Blaugust. Any way you slice it, July was a tough act to follow. But as the last rays of summer sunshine slip beneath the waves, we can take solace in the fact that at least it’s not winter. Yet. Actually, come to think of it, now might not be a bad time to get a head start on locking down the portable generator you’ll need when the power goes again in January.
It’s been a long, hot August all across North America this year. In the United States, the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri underscored the deadly intersection of white power with a militarized police force that’s armed to the teeth after four decades of the War on Drugs and a carte blanche from Homeland Security. In Canada, meanwhile, August also saw a less dramatic, if no less tragic, reminder of our own systemic inequities when young Tina Fontaine became the latest name on the country’s long list of missing and murdered indigenous women. When police pulled the teenager’s body out of Manitoba’s Red River on August 17, its muddy banks became another point in a constellation of sadness stretching from the New Brunswick ditch where they found Loretta Saunders to the BC interior’s Highway of Tears.
The anguish has been swift and overwhelming. Amidst the sadness, many indigenous activist groups are renewing their call for an official inquiry into the disproportionately high number of native women who are killed or go missing in this country every year. By the RCMP’s own estimates, Aboriginal women only make up 4.3% of the general Canadian population but account for 16% of all female homicides and 11.3% of all missing women – in more concrete terms, they make up almost 1200 cases altogether since 1980. At a time when the homicide rate among Canadian women has been generally trending down, the inverse has been true for their indigenous sisters.
For his part, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has consistently refused to call anything even remotely resembling a public inquiry. A few days after they pulled Fontaine’s body from the water, Harper insisted that this was a crime like any other – obviously tragic, but an isolated incident and definitely not part of a “sociological phenomenon.” I don’t know whether the man was brutalized by a sociology prof in college or if his brain is short-circuited by the fact that the words ‘sociology’ and ‘socialism’ sound vaguely similar, but presumably anyone serious about getting ‘tough on crime’ would know that the best way to do that involves asking how and why certain crimes occur and why particular types of crime happen disproportionately to particular groups of people. You know – understanding a problem in order to solve it.
Outside the Tory government, though, calls to “commit sociology” are rising. Alongside the legion of indigenous and human rights groups calling for a public inquiry, many of the provincial premiers have expressed their desire to get an investigation underway – or, if the feds keep stalling, to launch a public forum of their own so that something finally gets done. The federal opposition parties have also been stumping for an inquiry for awhile now, with Liberal Messiah Justin Trudeau going so far as to declare Stephen Harper is “on the wrong side of history.” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair probably also said something equally pithy and poignant, but he’s not Trudeau so no one in the national media cared enough to write it down.
At any rate, there are bigger fish to fry. Shortly after ruling out a national inquiry, the Prime Minister highlighted an issue he did want the government to look into – his long abiding wish that for just one time, he might trawl the Northwest Passage, and find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea. Its value to historical inquiry aside, the statement made it clear for whom Harper’s heart bleeds: the bones of white men, not red women.
Stephen Harper is, of course, not the only politician whose colonial chauvinism blinds him to basic social theory. The Newfoundland government has decided to do battle with the Big Land over whether or not to fly the Labrador flag at the Quebec border. Despite the fact that the flag has been in local use for over forty years, is regularly flown at government buildings across the region, and its display at the border is overwhelmingly supported by the majority of people who actually live in Labrador, the Tories refuse to play ball. The Labrador flag, Labrador Affairs Minister Nick McGrath insists, is a symbol of division, and only by consistently ignoring the demands of Labradorians to see it fly can our citizens live in harmony. In a particularly magnanimous display of goodwill, the government has actively started pulling down any Labrador flags raised at the border by locals. This is a smart move – nothing soothes regional alienation quite like using state force to repress cultural expression. When he’s finished with the flag flap, tell McGrath there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell him.
But maybe we should lay off the Tories – they’ve had a lot on their plates this month, and most of it’s been bitter. The Bill 29 review panel Tom Marshall called earlier this year is well underway, and so far the highlight’s been commissioner Clyde Wells giving newly minted Minister of Public Engagement Sandy Collins a verbal flogging by straight-up saying the government abused its own information laws. In response, Collins promised that the government would seriously consider thinking about possibly accepting whatever recommendations the panel comes up with, if they feel like it. Transparency! They also took a beating in the Stephenville-St. George’s East byelection the other day when Liberal Scott Reid trounced PC Wally Childs by a vote ratio of more than two to one. That makes it the fourth consecutive byelection the government has lost since 2011 – the third one in a row that had been held by a member of Cabinet. It’s getting to a point where even I’m starting to feel bad for them.
There may be a silver lining for them yet, though – the provincial government and the province’s major unions are allegedly close to hashing out a deal to reform public sector pensions. This is big. Unfunded pension liabilities make up close to three quarters of the province’s net debt – over $7 billion in all. Nothing is finalized yet, but it appears the unions (NAPE, CUPE, the NL Nurses’ Union, Allied Health, and the IBEW) will get to keep a defined benefits pension program in exchange for increased premiums and a later retirement date for new hires and younger workers. The timeline is to have all this hammered out before Tom Marshall finally retires as interim premier in the middle of September ahead of the Tory leadership convention – having a plan in place for unfunded pensions would be a nice gift to whoever gets his job. Fighting with unions over billions of dollars in pension liabilities is no job for the politically faint of heart, but given that Marshall is on his way out anyways it’s not like he’s got anything to lose. And since the unions knew where he stood on the defined benefits question, it was in their interest to play ball with him too – better the devil you know than the devil(s) you don’t, and all that.
Not that I’m saying any of the Tory leadership hopefuls are physical manifestations of the Prince of Darkness – to be radically evil, you’d actually have to stand for something.